It’s weird to think many of the iconic FPS games released in the late ‘90s were classified as DOOM clones and now, two decades on, I can’t help but think of Scathe – alongside several other modern FPS – as DOOM (2016) clones.
Now, I’m not talking about FPS with bunny-hopping and fast-paced, twitch-shooting – the broader term “boomer shooter” already has that covered. Rather, I’m thinking of the stylistic choices and attitude. Scathe is clearly playing into the same power fantasy narrative as the recent DOOM games but, despite first appearances, it still needs work to make the gameplay experience as compelling as the premise.
The protagonist, the titular Scathe – muscular and armour-clad to the point their in-game mobility makes no sense – is summoned by a “Divine Creator” that manifests as a glowing rune-covered ring (Halo?). He reveals his brother’s imminent plan to invade his kingdom and tasks Scathe with being his “fist”, striking first and claiming a powerful staff so that he can bring light to the chaos of hell.
That summary covers everything as after hours of play, pushing down each of the three paths available in the preview build, that amounts to all the narrative content I could find outside of brief codex entries.
Of course, this genre is rarely known for having a compelling narrative hook. Gameplay is king and Scathe, while entertaining in short bursts, needs refinement if it’s going to hold player’s interest for more than a few hours.
Scathe tasks you with cleaving your way through the underworld’s demons, zone by zone, while looking out for runes and Hellstones that unlock a path to the centre. You journey begins in front of an ominous tower; you enter a hub area to receive the basic “Hell Hammer” assault rifle; and then pick from one of three exits to start your journey.
Each leads to a series of interconnected zones, with slightly different aesthetics, layouts, hazards, and a smattering of unique enemies mixed in with common foes. About halfway through each of these three branches, you’ll encounter a shotgun, crossbow, or a devastating spell that simply causes your foes to explode into a shower of gore – think of it as a magical hit-scan grenade.
The all-rounder assault rifle has infinite ammunition – even for the secondary rocket attack that works on a cooldown – while the more situational crossbow and shotgun rely on scattered ammunition pickups. Magic attacks require you fill a meter by slaying foes and claiming their souls. As a consequence of this design, nonstop gunfire is typically Scathe’s idea of ambience.
The developers use the term “relentless bullet-hell fuelled combat” and that’s partially true. There’s a good mix of enemy types but many have ranged attacks with projectiles that are slow but numerous. Weaving left and right to avoid a stream of bullets is commonplace, though jumping and dashing – which can also be used offensively – are equally important, as many stages have unforgiving insta-kill pools of lava or acid.
The stages are all hand-crafted and, considered in isolation, many are smartly designed with a mix of tight corridors, open arenas, overlapping walkways, and hazards. There are, of course, pick-ups like ammunition, extra lives, and a short-lived beserk mode, tucked away in corners, along with and a few secret runes that require switch-hunting or some light platforming.
Enemy variety is also decent, with shambling undead zombies, basic demonic melee chargers and gunners, skeletons with flamethrowers, nimble aerial drones with guns and grenades, walking tanks, a cyber-demon knockoff, and, of course, large boss encounters. Weave between them to trigger friendly fire and they’ll even fight among themselves. However, there are a few duds in the roster. Floor turrets have way too much health and several variants of exploding demon balls – which bounce towards you in erratic patterns – can shred your health more effectively than any other foe.
In theory, all the basics are in place. Despite the limited number of weapon types and spells in this build, the shooting can be satisfying. Enemy models and environments might not be the most geometrically complex or detailed, but they look good and the gore is over the top. The soundtrack is suitably metal, albeit generic enough to be forgettable. Performance, even on my ageing gaming laptop (i5-8300H, 16GB DDR4, 4GB 1050 Ti, SATA-connected SSD) could be tweaked for a dynamic-1080/60, aside from a few rooms that tanked my framerate so hard I’m assuming it’s an optimisation issue.
My problem with Scathe is its progression structure and battle pacing.
Scathe’s labyrinthine design means you’ll eventually end up in the right place, but several zones have multiple exits and the runes and Hellstones you need to progress can be missed, forcing you to backtrack. On top of this, you have a “lives” system to contend with. Dying with spare lives just drops you back into the fray but, lose them all, and you’re back to the starting hub.
At first, I figured this was fine. You keep any collectables and the overview map of the tower will always show what you’ve missed. The problem is that not only do basic enemies respawn when backtracking, but so do the wave-based arena encounters.
Of course, many shooters follow the formula of locking you into an arena and summoning waves of enemies, Scathe just does it badly and drags these moments out far too long. One particularly memorable encounter – for all the wrong reasons – tasked me with defeating 120 demons in a tiny square arena to unlock the exits. There were flamethrower traps, a ring of insta-kill lava around the outside, and enemies just popping into existence haphazardly. It was tedious enough the first time bunny-hopping around a tiny space while burning through lives, but insufferable the second time I had to through. I chose to just die repeatedly, got sent back to the hub, and picked another path instead.
Maybe, if backtracking allowed you to run-and-gun past enemies back to an exit – speedrunner style – I’d have found the pacing more tolerable. However, the current design left me feeling increasingly frustrated and bored.
Scathe’s saving grace might be the promised drop-in/drop-out coop support but, having had no success in teaming up with anyone in the preview build, the solo experience quickly became repetitive and left me time to nitpick other issues like the simplistic enemy AI, some stiff animations, the superfluous face-wiping mechanic, limited player-damage feedback, and a few collision issues.
Scathe was at its best when the enemy encounters felt as hand-crafted as the levels, rather than a string of overlong arena battles. I’m sure some will argue I need to sink more time taking branching paths and experiencing all of the 60+ zones but that would mean more backtracking to junctions, and enduring more repeat encounters.
If the developers insist on sticking to this template, they need to reconsider the enemy mix, spawning zones, and length of each encounter to improve both the pacing and sense of polish. I’d also suggest the developers implement some way to highlight the rune or Hellstone requirements of upcoming roadblocks to limit the amount of backtracking.
I’d say keep an eye on Scathe but it might take a few patches and tweaks to perfect the experience.
A preview code for Scathe was provided to gameblur by the publisher.